At Sports Illustrated, Tim Layden tells the story of middle-distance runner Gabriele “Gabe” Grunewald, who discovered in 2009 that she had a very rare form of cancer, adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC), which is found primarily in the salivary glands and for which there is no standard of care. Then 22, she was on the verge of winning a Big Ten title and about to launch her professional running career. So they removed the tumor and she fought ACC.
“It all marked the beginning of Gabe’s life with cancer, not the end,” writes Layden. Within less than a decade, cancer has come back in different forms — again and again and again. Through it all, Gabe keeps running.
Since that morning in Tempe, cancer had come back three times. First there was thyroid cancer in 2010, just a year after her initial diagnosis. This was an entirely different kind of cancer, which at first confused everybody (but which now seems like a footnote). In the days between those first two cancers, Gabe, now 31, had lived—and run—voraciously. She learned that ACC five-year survival rates are very high (approximately 89%), and she attacked those five years. “Just fit in everything I can,” Gabe says. She procured that extra year of eligibility and took a whopping 10 seconds off her 1,500-meter PR, down to 4:12.06. She finished second at the Big Ten championship, second at the NCAAs and scored a modest pro contract with Brooks. Justin was away at medical school, in Duluth, so she also stayed out a little later, drank a little more beer and a little more red wine, escaping and experiencing a life she’d avoided in her past. “Sometimes those nights ended in tears and drama,” she says, “because I would get emotional about everything.” She had surgery on the thyroid cancer that fall, followed by one treatment with radioactive iodine, and then she bounced back quickly.
The big cancer, ACC, stayed away for seven years, and in that time Gabe carved out a career as a solid professional middle-distance runner. She finished fourth in the 1,500 meters at the 2012 Olympic trials, ran a personal best in the same event in ‘13 (4:01.48; only 10 American women have ever run faster) and won the indoor 3,000-meter national title in ‘14.